The Truth About Paint and Primer in One

Is "self-priming paint" a good product or good marketing?

Paint primer

The Spruce

Is self-priming paint ready for prime-time? More and more, paint manufacturers are advertising self-priming paint—promising to lift the burden of priming from homeowners' shoulders.

For homeowners holding down a day job and living a life on top of that, exterior house paint can take weeks or months. Interior painting, while not as involved, can vacuum up weekends when you'd rather be doing something else. Now, imagine ripping away one layer of that project, and how much time you might save as a result.

What Is Paint and Primer in One?

This is a special type of paint that is sold under a variety of names: self-priming paint, paint and primer in one, paint and primer, etc. This paint is advertised as allowing you to eliminate the priming step from your painting process.

While it is called paint and primer in one, there is no primer in the mix. It is a thicker paint that builds higher, giving you a sturdier coat of paint.

A Primer on Priming

Even without the time element, priming is universally disliked because its benefits are not immediately evident. Primer is not color. Painting the color coat is instant gratification; priming is drudge-work that eventually gets covered up. So why prime in this first place? 

Priming is necessary when dealing with bare surfaces that are very porous, such as wood, metal, drywall, or masonry.

You also need to prime when you are worried about wood-bleeding, gloss, grease, or other areas that make paint-adhesion difficult.

While you always do want to clean the surface as much as possible and roughen up glossy areas, this still does not automatically make the surface perfect and ready for a top coat. Primer helps bring the surface closer to perfection.

Self-Priming Paint Builds Higher

If science is what appeals to you, consider this: Self-priming paint is thicker than normal, non-priming paint.

It has a higher "build," meaning that in its cured (dry) state it builds up a thicker layer than regular paint or primer.

Most self-priming paint, despite the heavier consistency, should still be capable of being run through a paint sprayer without thinning.

Great Marketing

As with many advertising initiatives, this notion of self-priming paint is a great selling tool. Self-priming paint, as mentioned, is a thicker paint. But saying "thicker paint" does not indicate to buyers what they can use it for. 

Few homeowners realize the value of thicker paint; every homeowner realizes the value of self-priming paint. And reminding homeowners that self-priming paint eliminates the drudgery of painting—well, that's just brilliant marketing.

Most surfaces benefit from a primer, but is it always needed? Clean, dry, and fairly low-porous surfaces in good condition may not need any priming. This describes the walls in a typical interior living room, bedroom, dining room, or hall.

When Should You Use Self-Priming Paint?

While not an exclusive list, here are three scenarios when you'll find that paint and primer helps out the most:

  • Re-painting: Re-painting a wall in the same color as self-primer paint works well because you do not have to worry about color bleed-through.
  • Drywall: When you are painting new, unfinished drywall and you cannot stand the idea of separate priming, consider using self-primer paint. New drywall has to be primed. 
  • Interiors: Interior surfaces work best with paint and primer in one since interiors do not experience the stresses of exteriors—UV rays, rain, snow, etc. 

If your house has any paint problems—peeling, flaking, bubbling—seriously consider using a conventional primer instead.

Will It Save You Money?

Self-priming paint is restricted to the more expensive premium paint lines. 

This is important to note because this immediately drives up costs. You cannot go cheap with self-priming paint, even on a per-gallon basis.

Consider these thumbnail estimates.

  • A double-coat of self-primer: Apply a coat of self-priming paint at $25 per gallon. Let it dry. Apply the second coat of self-priming paint. $25/gallon again. For an exterior requiring 20 gallons of paint and primer, your tab is $1,000 or a bit less. 
  • Primer and paint: Apply a coat of primer at $12/gallon. Let it dry. Apply a coat of exterior acrylic latex paint, non-self-priming, at $17/gallon. Splitting primer and paint quantities down the middle (10 gallons each), the grand total is $290. Even being conservative and rounding up to $500, you are still spending a lot of money with the self-priming option.

In the first scenario, you are using expensive, tinted self-priming paint as your primer vs. less expensive real primer. After all, the tint is another factor that drives up paint costs.

Brands of Self-Priming Paint

A few paint manufacturers still do not expressly put "self-priming" on the front of the label. The self-priming quality is usually mentioned secondarily. To confirm, you can usually find technical specifications for paints on manufacturers' sites.